Footprints: When shahi mohallah fell silent

Published August 21, 2015
ON the walls of Bhaati Gate’s Millat Music Shop hang a variety of instruments, including a couple of sarangis and an oud, an Egyptian guitar, in the Walled City of Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star
ON the walls of Bhaati Gate’s Millat Music Shop hang a variety of instruments, including a couple of sarangis and an oud, an Egyptian guitar, in the Walled City of Lahore.—Arif Ali / White Star

THE setting sun melts into the sky in puddles of purplish pink. In the Walled City, life is busy as usual but where once a nocturnal verve began as soon as dusk descended, not many traces of that life are left.

The dancing girls are gone now. In the mohallahs that used to sway to the sound of bells and the beats of the tabla, today the only sound is that of passing cars. What used to be music academies have been sold and converted into shops. The baithaks where the tawaif and her musical crew entertained have turned into grocery stores. Like the dancing girls, the music has aged, faded away, and died.

“It is strange,” says harmonium-maker Rafiq Ahmed of Bhaati Gate’s Millat Music Shop. “The taste for music is entrenched in the soul of a human being. It is natural. If it were artificial, man would probably have invented an eighth sur. We in the Walled City were saturated in music, but it has left us.”

At his feet on the carpet are strewn the keys of a harmonium. Two antique gramophones sit behind him, their golden speakers gathering dust. On the walls hang a variety of instruments, including a couple of sarangis and an oud, an Egyptian guitar.

“I once saw in a book that Shakespeare said that ‘music washes away from the soul the dust of life’,” says the white-haired Rafiq (though actually, it was Berthold Auerbach).

“Before Heera Mandi closed down –– in General Ziaul Haq’s time –– business was smooth,” says Nasir Parvez, whose father started the shop 70 years ago. “The electronic keyboard in the ‘80s hurt a lot of business for acoustic instruments. With the keyboard you did not, for instance, need to buy a sitar. Even cinema music has changed; those orchestra players have vanished into thin air.”

Older people such as Rafiq Ahmed remember singers and musicians from the radio. “We had some greats singing and playing there,” he recalls. “TV performances did not matter then. The fantastic imagery created by the radio was far more hard-hitting. Today’s young people have no idea of this.”

Mohammad Iqbal, aka ‘Baalay’ Khan, also reminisces. The tabla player, who is now paralysed hip down, meets me at a crossing near the famous Phajjay Paye Wala eatery. “It was so colourful in those days,” he says. “The dancing girls used to be proper artists and singers. Now, if anything is left, it is just vulgarity. Now the descendants of the tawaifs and musicians have left this place.”

After the Zia era, since there was a ban on these nocturnal activities, the police often used to take bribes to allow the events to take place. But with Mizla Bai, a famed singer, even the police stepped back, remembers Baalay Khan. “Her mehfil would last all night and there was no stopping her,” he tells me. “She is one of those who did not end up coming on TV or the radio but were famous locally. She even went to India to perform.”

Like many other musicians, Baalay Khan had an academy but poor business left him with no choice but to sell it. Today it is just a teashop, its history buried under the cheap tiled walls and garish lights.

In the murder of music in the Walled City, religious extremists had the strongest hand; reviled policemen of the area have come and gone, all with the agenda of stopping the ‘immoral, unreligious mayhem’ that the residents called music.

Mohammad Tariq, a sound operator, says the respect given to culture and music has disappeared because of the religious lobby and the police. “We have no unions, and whenever something happens in the city or country, we musicians are the first to suffer,” he laments. “If there is a terrorism incident, our shops have to close down first. If there is a dharna, we suffer. The ban on loudspeakers led to the police cracking down first on our shops.”

The musicians do not play in Ramazan, and recently the rains too have marred events.

Sixty-year-old Guru Gogi, the head of a khwajasira community, remembers the time when Indian actors Rishi and Randheer Kapoor, Rekha and Kabir Bedi came to visit the Shahi Mohallah in all its glamour. The role of the khwajasiras in music has not been marked, but some have served as close aides of musicians and others have been musicians themselves. Gogi says the building where courtesan-turned-actress Zamarrud lived has now been given a pious persona with the name ‘Dua House’ emblazoned on it in large silver letters to distance itself from any colourful history. Even in the hub of this area, a veneer of enforced virtue can be seen.

Somewhere in the Walled City is a well. It is said that maestro Mohammed Rafi, who while still undiscovered lived in Lahore in pre-partition days, practised his singing there to hear his voice reverberate inside the shaft. Today Rafi’s voice still resounds in the hearts of many, even though the musical culture of old Lahore is irretrievably lost.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2015

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